Patient-clinician concordance in behavior and brain activity has been proposed as a potential key mediator of mutual empathy and clinical rapport in the therapeutic encounter. However, the specific elements of patient-clinician communication that may support brain-to-brain concordance and therapeutic alliance are unknown. Here, we investigated how pain-related, directional facial communication between patients and clinicians is associated with brain-to-brain concordance. Patient-clinician dyads interacted in a pain-treatment context, during synchronous assessment of brain activity (fMRI hyperscanning) and online video transfer, enabling face-to-face social interaction. In-scanner videos were used for automated individual facial action unit (AU) time-series extraction. First, an interpretable machine-learning classifier of patients' facial expressions, from an independent fMRI experiment, significantly distinguished moderately painful leg pressure from innocuous pressure stimuli. Next, we estimated neural-network causality of patient-to-clinician directional information flow of facial expressions during clinician-initiated treatment of patients' evoked pain. We identified a leader-follower relationship in which patients predominantly led the facial communication while clinicians responded to patients' expressions. Finally, analyses of dynamic brain-to-brain concordance showed that patients' mid/posterior insular concordance with the clinicians' anterior insula cortex, a region identified in previously published data from this study1, was associated with therapeutic alliance, and self-reported and objective (patient-to-clinician-directed causal influence) markers of negative-affect expressivity. These results suggest a role of patient-clinician concordance of the insula, a social-mirroring and salience-processing brain node, in mediating directional dynamics of pain-directed facial communication during therapeutic encounters.
© 2022. The Author(s).